The Sacrifice

When Johnny Hoogerland ascended the podium to be awarded the polka dot jersey as the Tour de France’s king of the mountains, if you’re anything like me, you exhaled in relief. At a certain level we could relax with the assurance that justice could be found on such a public stage.

What I doubt any of us expected was seeing Hoogerland overcome with emotion. I am unable to imagine anyone stonefacing the screen as the Dutchman struggled to bring composure to the stage where all achievement is vaunted. That moment may go down as the defining episode of this year’s Tour. It stands as a testament not to athletic achievement but the esteem that comes from the struggle for achievement that underlies all athletic endeavors.

Among cyclists, I’ve yet to hear a single person denigrate that moment of emotion as anything other than the sheer shock of incredulity at having managed something that would for most of us be manifestly unthinkable. Not that climbing out of barbed wire and riding our bike even five miles is impossible—no, the point is that to most of us such an act is unthinkable. After an accident in which our heels have pinwheeled past our head on our way to landing on a bed of nails, getting back on the bike is pointless.

And that’s the difference. Within my life, no bike race I might conceivably win has the power to redefine me so completely as a person that getting back on the bike becomes a reasonable sacrifice. After all, that’s what we’re talking about. Getting back on the bike is a sacrifice; in doing so, you are giving up a level of wound care and pain relief that are the first priority to the rest of us. Aside from the suffering we accept cycling to be, getting back on the bike is guaranteed pain.

The effort Hoogerland made to continue in the Tour is an object lesson in what it takes to reach this level of the sport. However, the real gravity in his effort is what it tells us of Hoogerland’s future, how he views the value of his work to this point in his life, the value of being selected to race with a pro team, being selected for the Tour, the question mark of what he has yet to achieve as an athlete. It’s easy to see how the effort he made to swing a leg back over the bike and resume riding was a statement of gratitude. Most cyclists will never get the chance to ride the Tour.

You want to know what it takes to don the polka dot jersey? I suggest that each of those stitches is but a tiny window into that work.

Hoogerland’s name was barely known to most of us before the Tour started. In my head he was just another Dutch cyclist. Now he’s a hero, not of the Tour or of cycling, but of the human spirit. After all, who walks out on a dream as the whole of the world gasps for you?

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


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  1. Chris

    Great post Padraig, I have really enjoyed watching him get into breakaways and animate seemingly every race he is in. He was quickly becoming one of my favorite riders in the peloton, but these past 3 days have really solidified my opinion of him. Finishing out Sunday’s stage, definitely in shock and full of adrenaline, was an amazing show, but doing it again on Tuesday with 33 stitches and the accompanying soreness while wearing the polka dots is the definition of professional

  2. P Poppenjay

    Interestingly, I just read this:
    Heroes are the people who do what has to be done,
    when it needs to be done,
    regardless of the consequences.
    And, indeed, he did.

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  4. Doug P

    Johnny was crowned that day as one of the kings of cycling. For me at least. We already knew the Low Countries’ riders were hard men. There is no better example than this.

  5. sophrosune

    I sometimes get the English version coverage of cycling on Eurosport here in Spain and I was watching a race recently in which this was the case and the announcers Sean Kelley and Dave Harmon were commenting on Hoogerland that he was such an extreme case of an attacking rider that they weren’t sure if he was aggressive or just mad. I was intrigued. But I really got interested when I saw him on the podium for the first time getting the polka dot jersey. He made a hash out of kissing the podium girls and never cracked a smile. I thought this guy is a little strange, in a good way. This unjust crash and his subsequent carrying on through the adversity has really made me like the guy. Interestingly he attributes his dispositon to being a Zeelander, someone from Zeeland, the westernmost province of the Netherlands, which is also where Wouter Weylandt was from apparently.

  6. Meg

    I was absolutely amazed that Johnny got back on his bike and finished the stage. Even more amazed when next morning he could barely bend his left knee, yet he signed in -and rode – next day. The man is a marvel and for me the strength and courage he has shown far outshines anything Armstrong ever did. There should be a Rider of the Tour jersey, and Johnny should be awarded it.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the good words everyone. Hoogerland deserves a spot among the sport’s enduring myths. I promise to do my part.

  7. Souleur

    Hoogerland is truly inspirational

    As he was about to podium, I for one was reminded of these smaller teams that oftentimes are overlooked, discarded and not allowed in. Chapeau to the organizers for letting these guys in, because now we do have a legend.

    Truly this was sacrificial by all definitions of the word….that being the giving of something greater for something of lesser. Lets face it, his life was on the line, his future, i don’t know perhaps his wife, kids et al. He was on the line, and he gave, for…what we look to as the KOM jersey. Some would recognize this as lesser, some say it was worthy. A good case could be said that he did something that indeed was greater. Its sincerely alot to weigh out, what he gave, how selflessly he rode, the great spirit of accepting his role in it all…it demonstrated what a class act this young man is.

    Let more of them in please

  8. Rich, Sprinting for Signs

    There was a time when a certain rider worked in another Team for a co-effort of bringing all of their passions together in one place so that all riders could understand the spirit of the riders from the Benelux. For many years Padraig hid amongst the shadows writing beautiful, insightful & educational pieces of writing so that we could all enjoy it. Those where the days of (unfamiliar with some of Padraig & Radio Freddie’s work you should check it out).

    Now under Red Kite Prayer you can receive open praise, but for me your hero status was birthed years before. As a follower of the Classics this rings true of Johnny Hoogerland, his attacking spirit in the races he attended was amazing to watch, if not a little crazy. I was blown away by Hoogerland’s grace & humility to not be angry when he was entitled to have enough righteous anger that he could smite mountains. We all learned a lesson that day. Oh for reference Wouter Weylandt wasn’t from Zeeland (it’s a province of the Netherlands) but he was from Gent (or Ghent if you prefer) which along with Oudenaarde is one of the most important cities in Flanders, Belgium.

    As always Padraig you bring the words that my heart yearns to speak.

    1. Author

      Wow, Rich. I’m really humbled by your words. I guess the best thing I can say is that the achievement here isn’t mine; it belongs to cycling. When Johnny Hoogerland got up off that barbed wire and climbed back on his bike, he made me proud to be a cyclist and to have a chance to put to words those emotions he inspires in us. Thanks for your kind words.

  9. Chas

    Your ability to use the written word to create feeling and emotion is outstanding – thank you. Hoogerland has in my opinion created a legend, one that will live far beyond this tour – in the face of adversity he proved just how tough the human spirit can be for the chosen few.

    Well done Johnny and of course, well done Cadel.

  10. Tom

    As a warm-up to the 2012 TdF, I decided to come back and look at this post. I just heard that Hoogerland is on this years team. I hope no one knocks him down this year.

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